Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, Beijing’s new best friend, has swiftly pivoted away from the US and into China’s arms, and arrived in Beijing today for a high-profile visit where he’s promised to improve economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Since he was elected little over 100 days ago, Duterte has trashed the US and played up links between the Philippines and China, even repeatedly bringing up the fact that he has a Chinese grandfather who came from Xiamen.
In a 20-minute interview broadcast by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV on Oct. 18 (though it was recorded in Manila on Oct. 13), Duterte and host Shui Junyi discussed a range of issues, but the interview was dominated by the two countries’ territorial dispute in the South China Sea and Manila’s about-face over the dispute.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, challenged Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea in an international tribunal and won, with a July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague invalidating China’s sweeping maritime claims. It was a huge victory for the Philippines and supported by Western allies like the US and Australia, but Duterte seems uninterested in using the result to rally international pressure against China—despite once vowing to ride into the South China Sea on a jet ski while waving the Philippine flag.
In the CCTV interview, Duterte maintained that he wasn’t “breaking away” from the US, but that he was merely being “pragmatic” and wants to be “friends with everybody.” On the Hague tribunal he said, “if it costs a third world war, what might be the point of insisting on the ownership of the waters? It does not bring prosperity.”
Ahead of his visit, Duterte played down the dispute over fishing rights in the South China Sea with China, pledging instead to only discuss trade issues. Reuters reported Wednesday, however, that Beijing is considering granting conditional fishing rights to the Philippines in Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Southeast Asian country in 2012.
“Someday, the South China Sea will just be what, China Sea?… 100 years from now, [the South China Sea] might be meaningless… the ocean cannot feed…[the] human race,” Duterte told CCTV. ”Your fish is my fish. We will talk, we will resolve, it is not the time to go to war.”
Shui asked how sincere his new diplomatic approach was, to which Duterte responded: “Maybe because I am Chinese and I believe in sincerity.” He added that one quarter of the Philippine population is of Chinese descent, and that at a recent business forum, “everybody [was] shouting” to accompany him to China.